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Be Bear Aware in Colorado

Updated: Mar 17

Planning a trip to Colorado this summer and hoping to do some hiking? Be BEAR AWARE!


Hiking in southwest Colorado is one of my favorite activities, and I especially love finding the trails NO ONE else is on. Even if you prefer hiking in more populated areas, knowing bear safety is extremely important. It could save your life and the life of a bear.


Here are a couple tips for being BEAR AWARE in Colorado and beyond.


Bears in the Woods

While hiking (no bear around…yet)

  1. MAKE NOISE

  • Talking loudly, wearing “bear bells,” or occasionally clapping your hands will alert wildlife to your presence. Remember, wild animals want to see you WAY LESS than you want to see them, so they will move on!)

  1. HIKE IN A GROUP

  • Hiking in a group of 2 or more people is the best practice for hiking in bear country. If you insist on hiking along, make sure you’ve told a family member or friend where you are and make extra noise while you are hiking. 

  1. HIKE IN DAYLIGHT

  • Bears are more active at night, dusk and dawn. As much as you are able, try to hike only during daylight hours. Of course, bear encounters can happen at any time, but it is more likely to have an unwanted bear encounter in the evening hours.

  1. FOLLOW POSTED REGULATIONS

  • If you see a sign posted on the trailhead of bear activity, choose a different trail.

  1. STAY ON THE TRAIL

  • Bears know where the people are. Bears don’t really like people. Stay on designated trails, bears will stay away (for the most part).

  1. KEEP DOGS & CHILDREN CLOSE

  • Bears are opportunists and typically will not attack animals or people that appear formidable opponents. Children and dogs are smaller and less predictable than the average adult. Tell your children about bear safety. Keep them close to you at all times.

  1. STAY TOGETHER

  • Hiking in groups usually creates more noise, alerting wild animals of your presence. Groups - to bears, which have terrible eyesight - also appear larger and more formidable. When hiking, stay close together and don’t spread out…especially when you have dogs and kids in your group.

  1. NEVER APPROACH WILD ANIMALS

  • Does this really need to be said? I used to guide hiking tours in Alaska and I cannot count the number of times people asked if I had ever “held” the baby grizzly bear or “petted” the cute wolf. No! Absolutely not! I do not have a death wish! DO NOT TOUCH WILD ANIMALS. #KeepWildlifeWild


If you see a bear, but it doesn’t notice you….


If you do come in contact with a bear in the wild, but it doesn’t notice you. Remember to SADL up and get out of there!


  • S: Stand still and enjoy a quick moment of the beauty of a bear

  • A: Stay far away and never approach the animal, even to get a slightly better picture

  • D: Distance - keep your distance (a LONG distance)

  • L: Leave quietly in the opposite direction of the bear


If you see a bear, and it notices you...


If you come in contact with a bear and it sees you, take extra precaution. Hopefully, there is enough distance between you and the bear and it does not show any aggressive behavior. Regardless, follow these steps:


SSSADLLL (double the danger, double the letters!)


  • SSS = Stop. Stand Still. Move Slowly: Never run from a bear. Running from predatory animals triggers a ‘chase' response. Much like throwing a ball for a dog will trigger the dog to run after the ball, running from a bear triggers the bear to run after you. Instead, stop moving, stand still, assess the situation and move slowly away.


  • A = Stay AWAY!: Never approach an animal. Start backing away from the bear (do not turn - keep your eyes on the animal to further assess the situation) and get as far away from it as you can.


  • D = Distance: Maintain distance from the animal and try to get further away. As you back away keep your eyes on the bear so you can react if its behavior changes.


  • LL= Get LARGE, Get LOUD: Bears have notoriously bad eyesight. If a bear sees you, try to get as big as possible. If you have kids or someone  smaller than you - have them climb on your shoulders. If you are in a group, bunch together and raise your arms up high. If you are alone, open your coats wide to make yourself appear larger. Remember, bears are opportunists and they don’t want to get in a fight with an animal that is larger than themselves. Start talking to the bear LOUDLY and in a LOW voice. I typically (I’ve run into a grand total of 1 bear in my life…so “typically” is not necessarily the word I should use) have a conversation with the bear. Something like “HEY BEAR! I SEE YOU AND YOU SEE ME. THANK YOU MR. BEAR FOR STAYING OVER THERE. I’M GONNA LEAVE IN THIS DIRECTION AND YOU GO IN THE OTHER DIRECTION. OK? THANKS MR. BEAR.” When I worked in Alaska, I taught my tour groups the native Tlingit word for bear. The theory - or the joke - was bears have been hearing indigenous languages far longer than they’ve heard English. Regardless of the language you use, keep your voice calm, firm, loud and in a low register.


  • L = Leave: Once you have backed away from the bear, and it has shown no sign of following you or interest in your (hopefully, it’s just turned and ambled off in the opposite direction from you) you can turn around and leave. Bears that have not shown aggressive behavior are unlikely to follow you. Bears are not known to track humans for food or sport or revenge (that’s a very human construct) - so you can rest easy, the bear encounter is over and it’s time to go home!


Looking for Bear Signs


If you are hiking an think you might be in the vicinity of bear look for these signs:


  1. Fresh scat - Bear poop (what we call scat) can change throughout the season, depending on what it eats. I often think bear scat looks similar to horse poop, especially in the early spring when bears are eating a lot of grass. You can learn more about identifying bear poop from this article by the National Park Service. If you come across an unfamiliar poop that looks super fresh, it’s probably time to turn around and head back to your car.

  2. Claw marks on trees - Bears will scratch trees to mark territory. If you see any long, straight marks about 5 - 6 ft up in a tree it might be bear markings. 

  3. Smell before you see (especially if you are a dog) - You will often smell a bear before you see it. Especially if you are hiking with a dog, the dog may alert you to a bear’s presence. You know it’s time to leave when your dog’s hackles to raise or it starts acting in a strange, on-guard way.


Aggressive Bears


If a bear acts aggressively towards you, follow the SSSADLLL (extra danger, extra letters) steps. Sometimes, a bear will mock charge a threat to scare it away. It is possible through following SSADLL the bear will decide you are too much of a hassle and stop charging.


If you do get into a fight with a bear, fight back by hitting or kicking its nose and eyes. You can use sticks and rocks as well. Protect your neck and soft tissue areas (like your belly) with your backpack if you are wearing one. Bear attacks are very rare and following proper bear precautions will keep you out of a dangerous situation.

 

Remember to Wilderness equation:

Wildlife + Distance = Safety for both people and animals


You can learn more from this great resource from the Bureau of Land Management.


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